Destiny, FOMO, And The Cynical Cycle Of Online Multiplayer

PHOTO CREDIT: © Bungie

PHOTO CREDIT: © Bungie

Every time I sit down to play Destiny, it's a joyful and painful experience.

The Taken King, Destiny's third expansion, is developer Bungie's latest and best attempt at making the ur-multiplayer shooter: the game everyone will be playing until they decide to make Destiny 2 (rumored to be coming fall of 2016). However, in order to understand what the game is doing to us as players, you have to know what the fear of missing out is (FOMO, for short).

If you've played video games for any length of time, FOMO is a familiar feeling: its a tangible level of anxiety derived from knowing you are not playing games that people are talking about, that may not exist in the future, and that are occupying people's collective mindshare. In other words, missing out on gossiping about the elephant in the room that other people can't stop staring at. In The Taken King, the King's Fall raid is the main FOMO-inducing element, an excellent level only reachable after spending a lot of time with the game. FOMO is the zeitgeist distilled into a crippling angst, and if you're not playing the game or mode everyone is talking about, you are losing out.

Playing any game with FOMO as its main draw, where every waking minute you're not playing it, experiencing it, or engaging with it feels like time wasted, sucks. It sucks because it feels like outside forces preying on your senses, on your weak will to resist not buying a thing associated with that thing you like, on the lack of agency our culture places on not keeping up. At best, it means games have more engrossing gameplay, elements we might call immersive (ie, the constant stream of loot you might get in Destiny); at its worst, FOMO means games have horribly addicting properties that make you feel jealous when you don't have them (ie, the constant stream of loot you might get in Destiny).

Anecdotally, part of the reason games like Call of Duty and Madden are successful is that they cater to the mainstream "I-play-this game-to-keep-with-my-friends" demographic, despite new games in these franchises being largely remixed versions of similar kinds of gameplay. Since they come out annually, there are now players who choose to or who can only afford the time to keep up with 1 multiplayer game. If Call of Duty happens to be the one with the most players, these individuals only buy that one game all year. Taylor and I have that friend (Hi Matt!), and I'm sure you do too. We've come to accept it as part of an unspoken social contract that if we want to play with our friends, we have to buy the Call of Duty-esque multiplayer game regardless of actual quality; this social anxiety baked in to FOMO is part of the game's appeal.

Every year, Madden games get away with being mostly roster updates with minor gameplay improvements because the game is guaranteed to be widely played regardless of quality. PHOTO CREDIT: © EA

Every year, Madden games get away with being mostly roster updates with minor gameplay improvements because the game is guaranteed to be widely played regardless of quality. PHOTO CREDIT: © EA

FOMO is not an inherently bad thing. The reasons Rocket League really took off this summer were because of the game's unending word-of mouth, its easy-to-understand mechanics, and, of course, because it was free on Playstation Plus the month it came out. Hearing that people really liked the game encouraged other people to check it out, ensuring that there would continue to be a large pool of people playing the game at any given time. It is consistently the game most people on my PS4 friends list are playing, even higher than other widely popular multiplayer games.

When Call of Duty: Black Ops III comes out though, expect to find less players playing Rocket League and perhaps even Destiny. The unfortunate side effect of new online multiplayer games coming out all the time is that the public tends to favor new shiny games compared to the old standards. For example, the release of Halo 5 means Halo: The Master Chief Collection's multiplayer end days are coming. On top of it, publishers treat online multiplayer games more as services than as experiences, which is the reason EA regularly disconnects servers for older sports games. Titanfall, while being an excellent multiplayer shooter, or Evolve, a well-designed team-based Us vs. Them game, failed to catch on with the masses and those games' player bases and servers dried up. It's the fear I have with games like Splatoon or the upcoming Star Wars Battlefront: they may be technically excellent, but won't be worth playing 2 months after release because players have moved on (on Splatoon, Nintendo has added quite a bit of postrelease content to keep the game fresh, so at least players hungry for more of that game have something new to return to).

Playing Destiny regularly is a curious experiment on games-as-a-service and FOMO. I have friends interested in playing with me, but after completing the raid, I have hit the "So, what's next?" step of the cynical cycle:

  • Using the raid guns and armor I earned to trivialize the rest of the content?
  • Starting a new character to start this process all over again (I did this and playing as a Titan when I've been playing as a Warlock feels like writing with my left hand)?
  • Completing this obscure quest to unlock an exotic weapon Bungie has been promoting?
  • Playing the PvP Crucible's Iron Banner limited time events and completing daily quests?
  • Convincing more people that Destiny is now a game worth spending time on?
  • Looking at my cool in-game gun and armory vault until the sun sets?

It's painful to reach the top of the mountain in a game, having the best weapons and armor, with nothing else left to conquer. MMOs have long had this same problem of keeping endgame content interesting (World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic have all seen their player numbers rise and fall). 

When Destiny's original story finished and it was clear the endgame was repeating strikes and missions to hope that better guns and armor would drop, my friends stopped playing. Now that the game has reached critical mass in the public's eyes again, I'm not convinced everyone is coming back for seconds, no matter how much I insist the game has improved. It's telling the Destiny's publisher Activision wants more money to keep the Destiny servers up and their customers happy by selling dancing emotes; remember that this game had an alleged $500 million marketing budget and is still having trouble keeping players interested. What chance do other online multiplayer games have if the biggest ones can't stay alive?

Early in the game's lifespan, when Bungie famously patched the "Loot Cave" exploit, a loophole that let players get a lot of equipment very quickly, they said:

"Shooting at a black hole for hour on end isn't our dream for how Destiny is played. Our hope is that social engagement in public spaces is only one part of the Destiny experience. Expect changes soon which decrease the efficiency of cave farming and correspondingly increase engram drops from completing activities."

Social engagement. In other words, FOMO is what Bungie sees it's own product as: a gussied-up chat room with guns, a platform for stories about that one you killed that raid boss Oryx or got that powerful item and made all your friends jealous enough to want to play it themselves.

Destiny's loot cave was one of the early reasons why the game's item drop rate was tweaked, even though players were getting weapons and armor they wanted. PHOTO CREDIT: © Bungie

Destiny's loot cave was one of the early reasons why the game's item drop rate was tweaked, even though players were getting weapons and armor they wanted. PHOTO CREDIT: © Bungie

For my part, the best times I've had with Destiny and other online multiplayer modes have been when I've actively disengaged with them, when I've released my FOMO into space and stopped worrying about how many times I've prestiged. Since completing the raid, I now have new friends to just hang out with online (I got extremely lucky meeting cool random Internet people) while shooting bad guys. When these folks aren't on, I'll fire up the strike or crucible playlists and cooperate or compete and watch my day's stress melt away. The dopamine rush of the loot treadmill has now been replaced by the soothing grind of familiar repetition. Someday, this game will be replaced by another loot treadmill, yet another multiplayer game, and another after that as social engagement platforms. The cynical cycle begins anew for the next entry in the Call of Duty-sized multiplayer space.

Maybe this is the lesson we are meant to learn after collecting all these guns to shoot virtual aliens or soldiers in the face: this rat race to get all the stuff, to wholly complete and conquer all a game has to offer, is meaningless. The important part is having fun, letting go of your FOMO, and stop worrying about keeping up with what all your friends are into. They're just going to think today's exciting multiplayer shooter is tomorrow's old news anyways.